CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A group of excited D.C.-area middle school students draped all over the back of the president's chair listened in as the president traded yuks and offered praise to astronauts on the Discovery space shuttle and the International Space Station.
The astronauts aboard the linked shuttle-station complex took the congratulatory call from the White House on Tuesday and told President Barack Obama and the students all about their adventures in space.
Obama got a big laugh in orbit and on the ground when he told the 10 space travelers that at a cruising speed of 17,500 mph, "We're glad that you are using the hands-free phone."
The president told the two crews he was extraordinarily proud of them for their work at the international space station over the past week. He wanted to know how they installed the new solar panels and what the impact of that green power would be.
"We're investing back here on the ground a whole array of solar and other renewable energy projects and so to find out that you're doing this up at the space station is particularly exciting," Obama said.
Last week's addition of the last set of solar wings doubled the amount of power available for science experiments and will help support a larger crew in a few months, the astronauts said.
The half-hour call came as the astronauts were relaxing after the third and final spacewalk Monday. Shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven will pull away Wednesday.
Obama relayed questions from the Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology students. They wanted to know whether the astronauts can play video games in space. They also asked what the astronauts eat.
Discovery astronaut John Phillips said he occasionally played a video game when he lived on the space station for six months in 2005. But he noted spare time is rare in orbit.
One of the two former schoolteachers who flew up on Discovery, Richard Arnold II, said the food was pretty good, consisting mostly of dehydrated fare and military-style ready-to-eat meals "that a few of us ate last year when the hurricane came through Houston."
"You guys still drink Tang up there?" Obama asked with a laugh. He said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew on a space shuttle in 1986, told him it had been taken off the menu. Nelson was one of the members of Congress who took part in the call.
"By the way, before the time of you young people, we used to drink Tang," Obama said.
When the students asked whether they astronauts had found any life forms up there, the president feigned seriousness.
"That's a good question," he said.
But they haven't found anything yet, the astronauts said. "I think we'll have much more success at finding new types of life and different structures when we go to places like moon and Mars," said astronaut Sandra Magnus.
Obama couldn't resist asking Magnus -- the only woman on board -- whether she was tempted to cut her hair, which floated in every direction, while she was in space. She said no, and the president called it "a real fashion statement."
There was no mention of NASA's No. 1 job, empty since Obama took office. The president has yet to nominate a new NASA chief.
The space agency's second-in-command last year, Christopher Scolese, has been filling in as acting administrator and was at the White House for the call.
More Information: NASA